The Demise of Authority

The first time I realized something was amiss in our culture was after I graduated from college in 1990. Like everyone else, I emerged from my cocoon an idealistic and naive twenty-two year old. But it didn't take long for the seeds of wisdom to be planted.

My early public school teaching experiences provided a quick lesson in how modern culture operates. Somewhere over the previous twenty years, while I was busy becoming a young woman, society had changed. I grew up watching Leave It to Beaver, The Brady Bunch, Family Affair, Bewitched, and all the other benign programs that hailed from the 1950s and 60s. But the world these characters inhabited was quite different from the one I had entered.

There are many societal changes -- both good and bad -- that have occurred in our culture these past forty years. But there is one that is so monumental, so far-reaching, it colors all the rest: the complete breakdown of authority. This isn't a problem that only abounds in public schools and on the streets of America; it is a chronic and pervasive problem in our homes. Leave It to Beaver, The Brady Bunch, and all the rest get a lot of flack for representing the idealized nuclear family; but regardless of how you feel about traditional families, they have one undeniable characteristic: They represent a family dynamic where the adults are clearly in charge.

When I entered the teaching profession, I had no idea the degree to which discipline had broken down in our public schools. It took changing jobs, several times, before it registered that the problem was pervasive -- and I subsequently left the profession. It’s just impossible to teach in schools with weak administrations. The only positive teaching experience I had came several years later -- at a private school.

Soon afterward – in 2000 -- I became a mother; and these past nine years have been eye-opening. Simply put, the same lack of authority I witnessed in the schools I have witnessed as a parent. Indeed, I have been absorbed in discipline-related matters for some twenty years now; and I can tell you, unequivocally, that the problem is greater than many Americans realize. Good discipline is the catalyst by which children learn and grow: If it isn’t in place, everything else falls by the wayside.

Something has seriously gone wrong in America. The breakdown of authority – which began in the 1960s, when people began to question authority en masse and we saw the rise of individualism – has created a nation of adults ill-equipped to handle the rudimentary concepts of discipline. Disciplining children is no small task, and certainly some adults will have a more difficult time than others. It isn’t necessarily something that comes naturally -- which is why it’s critical that the culture supports our endeavors. When it comes to parenting, there are two prerequisites for instilling proper discipline: an authoritative (not autocratic) personality in at least one parent, and a team effort on the part of both parents. If one of these is lacking, discipline will be a challenge. For some parents, it becomes the bane of their existence.

Previous generations had two advantages when it comes to discipline – and thus has fewer problems maintaining authority. One, most families had two parents. This cannot be overstated, for when one parent is absent, discipline generally breaks down. Two, Americans at that time believed parents were the boss. The idea of understanding children, of being your children’s friend and working through problems with them the way we would do with our own friends, had yet to seep into our social fabric. Finally, the self-esteem movement – which suggests humans are so fragile they can’t handle the truth – had yet to do its damage.

Today both these things are at play: single-parent families and a culture obsessed with self-esteem. Modern parents have concluded, or have been taught to conclude, that the best way to raise children is to offer lots of wiggle room -- which is why we see parents giving their children four and five chances to change their behavior. It’s why we see them apologizing to their kids for something that requires no apology. It’s why we see them making excuses for Johnny’s bad behavior. It’s why we see them talking to their children as if they had mental deficiencies and can’t handle swift punishment. In today’s culture, punishment is akin to abuse.

This is a concept that has taken hold in America, and it’s been a mistake of monumental proportions. Disciplining children is hard enough on its own; living in a culture that undermines this work is a catastrophe. Modern parents need support for how to instill proper discipline in a way they never have before. We've transitioned away from a nation when children were meant to be “seen and not heard" (a perfectly good idea) to a nation of spoiled, disrespectful, ill-mannered, and undisciplined kids. This didn’t just happen. Children come into this world the same way they did one hundred years ago; they haven't changed one iota.

It’s we who have changed – and not for the better.

2 Responses to “The Demise of Authority”:

  1. Anonymous says:

    I completely agree!! I cannot believe the way my some of my kids friends speak to me. It isn't necessarily what they are saying, it's HOW they are saying it. How about a "hello" Mrs. X" instead of completely ignoring me when I walk into the room. I remember being a kid at a friend house and actually being somewhat nervous when they walked into the room and making sure i said hello and be polite. It just rarely exists today. We can blame t.v., in my opinion, as well as their parents. Have you actually wathced Sponge Bob?!

  2. Yes, I have seen Sponge Bob -- as well as most other modern television for kids. That's why my kids aren't allowed to watch these shows.